Supporting female violence researchers who experience vicarious trauma


Violence against women and girls is a pervasive yet highly intolerable crime worldwide. It can happen in any area/community in the UK, and results in adverse physical and mental health consequences to survivors (Home Office, 2022). Nowadays, the UK government has convened various organisations to tackle violence against females, including the NHS, local authorities, and Police and Crime Commissioners (Home Office, 2022). These sectors work closely with community members which in part affords them the capability to detect, report or manage the episodes of violence and abuse (Home Office, 2022).

Researchers and academics often engage with first-hand materials related to abuse and sexual violence, such as primary research with survivors or perpetrators to gather information and increase our understanding of the lived experience of violence. Consequently, the exposure to violent or traumatic content may subject violence researchers to experience secondary trauma; known as vicarious trauma (Williamson et al., 2020). Vicarious trauma can happen to individuals involved indirectly due to the distressing, intimidating, and painful nature of the material. Therefore, violence researchers need to equip themselves with efficient coping mechanisms to mitigate potential psychological harm (Williamson et al., 2020).

Kaul and colleagues (2023) recognised the gap of evidence in the experiences of secondary trauma in violence researchers. They conducted a qualitative study to gain insights into the lived experiences of vicarious trauma among violence researchers and their coping and resilience at the workplace. The authors also aimed to explore how the role of organisational support influences researchers’ mental health.

It is significant to recognise the vulnerability of violence researchers to secondary trauma and assist them in coping with stress or emotions related to research contents.

Violence researchers are vulnerable to secondary trauma and may require support to cope with stress or emotions related to research content.

Methods

This qualitative study used purposive sampling to recruit eligible participants who were UK-based adult researchers working in the areas of violence and abuse and held memberships at the UKRI Violence, Abuse and Mental Health Network (VAMHN). The study was advertised through an online newsletter shared with members of VAMHN and via Twitter to approach potential participants. All participants completed individual semi-structured interviews online. Interview data were analysed using reflexive thematic analysis.

Results

The study involved seven participants in total. All participants were White female researchers and reported their average research experience in violence and abuse was 1.5 years. Participants mutually recognised that a lower degree of expertise was associated with poorer emotional responses towards their work. Some participants reported higher levels of expertise and felt this was a contributing factor to their ability to manage stress and access relevant support. The following main themes were identified:

Expertise and resilience

Many participants attributed their ability to manage work-related stress to their increased experiences in engaging with violence research. This may demonstrate a potential positive relationship between expertise and resilience in work. However, some participants described that resilience may not always match outward appearances and can vary over time. Thus, it may suggest that resilience is fluid within and across researchers. There was a mutual belief that researchers should rely on their ability to cope with their work stress. However, this underscores the importance of organisational support and supportive environments.

Workplace stress

Participants were committed to their work because they found it meaningful. However, this did not come without its emotional challenges:

  • the triggering nature of violent contexts
  • the research requires repeated visits to sensitive/traumatic materials
  • the blunt workplace culture encourages researchers to ‘get on’ with the stress
  • the mental weight of representing the survivors’ stories accurately
  • the perceived lack of confidence in the ability to support survivors
  • the worries about the potential impact of research evidence and clinical implications

Experiences of secondary trauma

All participants had experienced secondary trauma due to the nature of their research work. Forms of the described secondary trauma were categorised as cognitive, physical, emotional, interpersonal, and altered beliefs. Secondary trauma was commonly represented by feelings of anxiety, isolation, and stress experienced by participants after hearing survivors’ experiences of abuse. Many participants experienced somatic symptoms of stress, whilst others spoke of compassion fatigue and burnout.

Given the sensitivity and the potentially triggering nature of violence research, some participants found it challenging to share their work with others and felt disconnected. Many experienced altered beliefs towards themselves, their work, other people, institutional support for survivors, and society.

Impact of COVID-19

The altered work arrangements due to the COVID-19 pandemic had some positive changes for some participants. For instance, one participant noticed that other work commitments had become inactive due to COVID-19, which gave her extra time to work on the violence research. For others, the pandemic and online work had negative impacts and lockdowns were seen as a barrier to accessing healthy coping strategies concerning work stress.

Personal characteristics

Personal characteristics such as personal experiences of abuse and gender were described as factors associated with participants’ experiences of secondary trauma. For instance, some participants felt past trauma had been triggered by hearing the stories of survivors. Others stated that being a woman helped them understand the survivors’ journey.

I started realising that I probably experienced childhood trauma reading the material.

Personal coping mechanisms

Most participants relied on private mental health support as coping mechanisms, while a few embraced self-care and mindfulness practices. On the contrary, others adopted unhealthy coping strategies, including eating more food and drinking more alcohol.

Experiences of organisational support

Some participants described that their well-being benefited from having reflective supervision lessons and peer support. Many participants considered peer support as more significant than peer support for violence researchers. However, indicated by many participants that there has been a lack of peer support networks at universities. In addition, participants also recognised the insufficient organisational support for violence researchers by universities. For example, the drop-in sessions run by the universities were regarded as not attentive to the needs of researchers. Some participants found that the universities had unclear signposts to counselling sessions, while some participants felt their universities failed to provide formal training for violence researchers.

Suggestions for organisational improvement

This paper suggests that organisations can improve their support to violence researchers in the areas of ethics, funding, training, interpersonal and emotional support, and policy.

Taking care of violence researchers’ mental health is an institutional responsibility that many organisations failed to meet.

Taking care of violence researchers’ mental health is an institutional responsibility that many organisations fail to meet.

Conclusions

In this study, all participants experienced symptoms of secondary trauma. This highlights the perceived negative impacts of violence-related research on researchers’ mental health outcomes. Individual factors such as gender, personal ability to manage stress and emotions, researchers’ mental burden to meet expectations, familiarity with violence research, and personal history of abuse were suggested to be associated with researchers’ experiences of secondary trauma. Moreover, external factors such as activities involved in the research processes (e.g., revisiting violent materials for data analysis), the triggering contents related to the research topics, the dismissive culture of researcher wellbeing at universities, lack of organisational support, were also demonstrated to have a detrimental impact on mental health outcomes of researchers.

Organisations need to recognise and meet the emotional needs of violence researchers by improving ethics processes, training opportunities and peer support.

Organisations need to recognise and meet the emotional needs of violence researchers by improving ethics processes, training and peer support.

Strengths and limitations

There has been an increasing concern about the mental health of researchers working with primary materials on violence and abuse. This study drew attention to the experiences of secondary trauma of researchers in academic institutions and highlighted the significance of organisational support in improving researchers’ wellbeing.

This study revealed some limitations. Purposive sampling restricted the diversity of the participants and the generalisability of the findings to wider research communities. Using VAMHN as the gatekeeper to approach potential participants may have limited the sample to researchers who were already active in seeking mental health support or engaging with informal support networks. Consequently, violence researchers who struggled with secondary trauma but had not used VAMHN may have been neglected. Furthermore, thematic analysis helps identify the main patterns of qualitative data (Braun and Clarke, 2019). However, the sample size of seven participants may have been too small to generate common themes that could also apply to violence researchers in other UK research settings with confidence; making this research more appropriate for IPA or narrative analysis. It is noticeable that all participants were white females, overlooking female violence researchers from other ethnic groups in the UK. This recruitment outcome – dominated by white researchers – may reflect the under-representation of ethnically minoritised researchers in the academic world. It also inspires readers to consider potential barriers preventing researchers from minoritised ethnic groups or those who identify as different genders from stepping forward and sharing their experiences.

Furthermore, the geographic focus on the UK context also limited the generalisability of findings to other countries. Violence research takes place around the world; however, the findings of this study may be less beneficial for female violence researchers from other countries, such as low-and-middle-income countries with less resources and funding for formal/informal support pathways. Moreover, violence researchers are not exclusive to university settings. In recent years, there has been an initiative to support local authorities in the UK to conduct research to inform policy and practice. Several local authorities have taken on the lead and recruited academic researchers for a range of projects (Department of Health and Social Care, 2022). This study failed to include researchers from other institutions. The findings, therefore, are potentially less applicable to researchers who are embedded in non-academic organisations.

The findings were restricted to the female violence and abuse researchers working at universities in the UK and may not reflect the experiences of researchers in other settings and/or countries. 

Findings were restricted to white female violence researchers at UK universities and may not reflect the experiences of researchers in other settings and/or countries.

Implications for practice

The findings can help universities and other research institutions to recognise the emotional needs of violence researchers and explore how to better support their mental health. Although researchers are required to reflect on their research practices in their ethics application form, the primary concern often surrounds the wellbeing of the participants. Therefore, ethics committees are encouraged to prompt researchers to thoroughly consider the emotional or physical implications of the violent content on their wellbeing. Committee members should also assist researchers to recognise the potential risks and advise on how to better safeguard researchers’ mental health, wherever possible.

Institutions are suggested to create physical and virtual spaces for researchers to socialise or debrief with their peers. Peer support spaces can be built across regions, universities, and other institutions. Researchers should feel comfortable seeking advice, building networks, sharing training opportunities, and signposting relevant support services on these platforms. These broad networks may bring positive outcomes to members. For instance, a general practitioner who had detected a patient who was also a domestic abuse survivor would have the opportunity to connect with a university lecturer who was exposed to violent discourses by a student, to discuss how to manage unexpected sensitive information.

Effective changes are likely to happen if many institutions implement actions. Therefore, institutions are suggested to put policies in place to create a trauma-informed culture for researchers to feel safe to talk about their feelings. A friendly and understanding work environment may encourage individuals to set up informal peer support groups, enabling effective communication and mutual care among researchers. Policies that aim to promote a healthy work pattern or schedule for researchers are also encouraged for implications.

Institutional support includes creating a healthy research culture, offering training courses and support sessions, and building peer support networks for organisations to improve the mental health of violence researchers.

Institutional support includes creating a healthy research culture and building support networks to improve the mental health of violence researchers.

Statement of Interest

None.

Links

Primary paper

Kaul, A., Chavendera, D. D., Saunders, K. and Paphitis, S. A. (2023) ‘Improving Emotional Safety, Coping, and Resilience Among Women Conducting Research on Sexual and Domestic Violence and Abuse‘, Journal of Interpersonal Violence.

Other references

Braun, V. and Clarke, V. (2019) ‘Reflecting on reflexive thematic analysis‘, Qualitative Research in Sport, Exercise and Health, 11(4), pp. 589-597.

Government of UK. Department of Health and Social Care (2022), £50 million to tackle health inequalities through research. Available at: £50 million to tackle health inequalities through research – GOV.UK (www.gov.uk) (Accessed: 08 Feburary 2024).

Home Office (2022), Violence against women and girls national statements of expetations (accessible). Avaiable at: Violence against women and girls national statement of expectations (accessible) – GOV.UK (www.gov.uk) (Accessed: 08 Feburary 2024).

Williamson, E., Gregory, A., Abrahams, H., Aghtaie, N., Walker, S. J. and Hester, M. (2020) ‘Secondary Trauma: Emotional Safety in Sensitive Research‘, Journal of Academic Ethics, 18(1), pp. 55-70.

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